Author: Ian Hefler & Jay Reiss
Writer’s Potential: 3
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Right now, Nina’s in San Francisco, living with pretentious photographer ETHAN (27). It’s her birthday, and he throws her a surprise party. Terry has set up a pointlessly elaborate cell phone/speakerphone infrastructure, so both the Basses and the Schiffs (including a reluctant Vanessa) can wish Nina a happy birthday. Carol tries to pressure Nina into coming home for Thanksgiving, because she hasn’t been home in five years, but Nina has no interest. In fact, she says, she can’t leave right now because Ethan proposed to her two weeks ago — they’re engaged! After the phone call, Nina catches Ethan fooling around on her. Enraged, she returns to West Orange.
It’s warm for late November, so Paige and Carol lay out a backyard barbecue while David and Terry hole up in David’s “man-cave,” a plasma-TV-dominated fortress of solitude that used to be a poolhouse. Nina shows up at her home, but nobody answers the door. Reluctantly, she crosses the street and rings the Schiffs’ bell. David answers, and Carol and Terry are overjoyed. They help Nina bring her luggage to her old room, which they’ve converted into a “second den,” as Carol and Nina have a sniping conversation about Nina’s plans for the future (she has none, except to get out of the house). The subject then turns to TOBY, Vanessa’s older brother, who’s essentially been waiting for Nina since she left. Carol thinks he’s a great catch (he’s “gotten very attractive” and has a good job), but Nina is openly hostile about the idea. Meanwhile, David tries to make romantic getaway plans and cozy up to Paige, who freezes him out.
Toby arrives in time for Thanksgiving dinner, and he is attractive and warm, confident yet unpretentious. Nina’s shocked. He announces business plans to go to China, which impresses both the Basses and the Schiffs. After dinner, David struggles to get ice cream out of the tub. Nina enters with dirty dishes and suggests running warm water over the spoon. David’s surprised and impressed, but Nina plays it off — she’s worked at a lot of restaurants. David is cautiously sympathetic about Ethan. Nina asks about David’s job, which is going well, and his marriage, which is not (but David tries to deny it). Paige interrupts, demanding to know why he hasn’t returned with dessert. After dessert, the families discuss Black Friday, a foreign concept to Nina. Paige is both excited by and obsessed with the day, making the others uncomfortable. Later, Toby and Nina get drunk and stoned. A lightweight, Toby passes out. Nina goes upstairs and finds David, making a late-night snack to take back to his man-cave. She tells him he shouldn’t, because she doesn’t think David would look good fat. After considering the option of going back to a passed-out Toby or following David to the man-cave, she opts for the latter. They share a brief, intense kiss.
The next afternoon, Carol and a hungover Nina overhear Paige returning from her shopping spree. Carol and Nina snipe at each other some more, until they’re interrupted by Toby, who invites Nina for a dinner date…with David and Paige. At the Schiffs’, Toby mentions the invitation, which leads to an argument with Vanessa, which in turn leads to Toby chastising her for continuing to work at Ikea. David doesn’t like the idea of the dinner date. After dinner, the foursome play a game, which Paige wins. When Paige and Toby go off to do the dishes, an uncomfortable David decides to go to the video store. Nina volunteers to go with him. In the car, they discuss the kiss — Nina insists it’s nothing, but David believes it was most definitely something. He doesn’t want it to happen again, but nonetheless they make out. The next day, Paige barks orders at David as he struggles to set up an elaborate Christmas lawn display. That night, Nina bails on a family dinner, claiming she’s going out with Toby. A surprised Terry tells Carol that Toby was called away to China early. She hops in her car and follows Nina, who receives an apologetic text message from Toby. She’s mortified but presses on, oblivious to Carol tailing her. Nina arrives at a motel. Carol spies her entering a room, then bumps into David, who holds an ice bucket engraved with the same room number.
Leaping to the obvious conclusion, Carol first vomits, then rushes home to tell Paige. David and Paige fight about it. David first plays it off as a simple kiss and a mistake, then tells Paige he’s not happy and that trust and commitment “aren’t enough” for him. Paige leaves. Nina deals with her enraged parents, who are flummoxed to discover she doesn’t see this as a simple mistake or moment of passion. She goes across the street to David’s house. They share an awkward but tender moment, interrupted by a disgusted Vanessa. After an obscenity-laced tirade from Vanessa, Terry arrives to get into an awkward fistfight with David.
Vanessa goes to Ikea and discusses the situation with co-workers MAYA (20s) and HENRY (30s, a Thai immigrant). Henry believes the situation has more to do with gold-digging than anything else. Vanessa narrates a montage as David breaks down at work; Nina moves into her friend MEREDITH’s apartment; Carol traces Paige to a coastal bed and breakfast, where she attempts a peace offering with Christmas gifts; Terry, still angry, monitors the Schiff house with some high-tech binoculars; After the montage, Vanessa consults once again with her Ikea co-workers, who decide she must move out. Vanessa balks, but they talk her into at least looking for a place to live. Nina and David meet at a Starbucks for the first time since the pseudo-affair was discovered. Nina still tries to pretend it was nothing, but David disagrees. As they talk, they come to realize there’s something real between them and decide to go for it. They jaunt off to Atlantic City, leaving Vanessa to find an explanatory note. She discusses it with Maya and Henry, who don’t know what to make of it. Nina’s impressed by David’s knowledge of craps. At a steakhouse, David runs into a co-worker and his wife. Initially, Nina’s nervous about being seen, but they both realize they don’t care.
When David returns, Vanessa interrogates him, knowing full well that every answer he gives is a lie. David confesses the awkwardness and frustration to Nina, who sarcastically suggests they just tell everyone. Cut to: David telling everyone. Carol and Terry are, once again, shocked and horrified. Vanessa’s enraged. David gives a long speech about how, even though it’s selfish and on the surface seems wrong, he’s happy so it shouldn’t matter, and therefore he shouldn’t have to stop. Carol and Terry reluctantly accept this explanation. Carol eventually begins asking some inexplicably dirty questions, causing Nina to cast her out of David’s house. Vanessa narrates a montage showing the changes creep into the families — David mostly stops going to work to spend time with Nina, leaving Vanessa to hide in her room and get high; Terry, although unnerved, admires how lively David has become and decides to rekindle his passion for Ultimate Frisbee and his wife; Carol tries to get in touch with Paige but can’t find her anywhere; Paige, although MIA, sends some out obnoxious Christmas cards and gifts for David and Nina; and as Vanessa turns to her friends for support, she finds them rooting for David and Nina and, yet again, encourage her to move out.
While shopping, Paige runs into a rep for an organization called Barnyard International and asks about the organization, which buys animals to provide food for starving children. David gets Nina a job interview with a restaurateur. Her cell phone rings, startling her. It’s Ethan. She turns it off, apologizes and promises she always keeps her phone off while working. The restaurateur warms up to her, and she gets the job. Paige abruptly quits her Christmas caroling gig, horrifying the other carolers. She keeps mentioning barnyard animals and makes herself laugh, baffling the others. David drops Nina off for her first evening of work. As she leaves, he tells her he loves her. Nina’s playfully angry because she wanted to say it first. Vanessa and Maya tour a large, overpopulated loft. Maya encourages Vanessa to take it; she reluctantly agrees. At the restaurant, David shows up to have dinner in support of Nina. He’s surprised when Paige shows up. They have an awkward, unpleasant conversation. She brings him up to speed on Toby’s work in China. After her shift, Nina storms out of the restaurant, past a waiting David. Nina explains she got fired her after realizing what’s happening between David, Paige, and Nina. He refuses to get in the middle.
Ethan shows up in West Orange. Carol is unpleasant at first, then realizes what this could do for David and Nina. She sends him across the street. Ethan confronts David and Nina. He tells Nina he’s seeing a therapist and trying to understand his problems so he can be a better person for her. She won’t take him back. David approaches Terry. After an awkward conversation, David admits he loves Nina. Terry leaves. Paige works at the Barnyard International call center, impressing her boss. She sneaks and dials home but is surprised when Nina answers. Paige claims to be from “Homewreckers International” and says some hostile things, but Nina quickly realizes she’s talking to Paige. Nina hangs up. She catches Vanessa leaving and insists what she has with David is real. Vanessa knows, but she’s not happy about the disaster this has caused.
Ethan sets up shop out on the sidewalk, with a sign begging Nina to take him back. Nina confronts him, but but he won’t budge. On Christmas Eve day, Toby returns from China. He’s baffled by the sight of Ethan on the sidewalk. As Maya continues to pressure Vanessa to take the apartment, her phone rings — it’s Toby, steaming because nobody’s informed him of the changes that have taken place over the past month. He then confronts Nina and David, who disregard his feelings. The carolers arrive, followed shortly thereafter by Paige, who bitterly runs over the entire Christmas lawn display. When David hears the calamity, he runs out to investigate, and Paige aims the car at him. Toby manages to stop her, but she does clip David’s thigh.
Inside, both families gather and have an awkward gift exchange. Toby has given them all various gifts from China. Paige has bought them all adoptive cows and goats, who provide milk for starving babies. Nina presents each of them — except David — with a gift, old photographs of themselves at younger ages, looking happy. Paige slaps Nina in the face — hard. In the bedroom, Nina ices her face down. David comes to console her. He suggests moving to another city, which Nina dismisses as impractical. She hands one last photo to David — it’s him, much younger, happier, with a baby (Nina) in the background. Once she found that, she realized this had to end. Meanwhile, Ethan has convinced the carolers to sing a song for her.
Vanessa narrates a montage explaining that David moped for awhile but eventually got over it when he started smoking pot with Vanessa and founded a new company building “man-caves” for other middle-aged men, Nina told Ethan about David but still refused to get back with him, Carol and Terry bought a vacation home in the Poconos, Paige made amends with all the neighbors before going to Africa with Barnyard International, Toby married a nice girl, and Vanessa got a slightly better job and moved to New York City. At the end, Vanessa bumps into Nina, working at an organic restaurant in the city. Nina introduces Vanessa to MARK, a chef at the restaurant. They’re not dating. After an awkward conversation, Vanessa and Nina decide maybe they can be friends.
The first act starts with an immediate hiccup, relying on lazy narration over a montage that explains each character and their relationships to one another. This tactic repeats several times throughout the script, but it always feels like a cheap way to spoonfeed information to the audience and allow time to pass. Once the actual plot kicks in, the writers do an efficient if unenthusiastic job of setting up what will drive the story: the relationship between David and Nina.
This development causes the deterioration of the Schiff and Bass families, as well as their longtime family friendship, over the course of the second act. Rather than building suspense or complexity as the relationship intensifies and the other family members get angrier, the writers cut to another montage and pick it up after the relationship’s in full swing. From there, it’s pretty much a series of sketch-like comic scenarios instead of an actual story. The story ambles, seemingly without direction, until it sputters to a third act that’s shrill and over-the-top.
When Ethan and Paige finally reappear after what feels like a 60-page absence, it’s an enormous letdown. Ignoring the fact that Paige’s apparent psychotic break is played for laughs (although the “ironic destruction of Christmas decorations” physical schtick has been done in at least a half-dozen other holiday movies), these characters stopped mattering to the story long ago. The writers bring in these sources of external conflict because they have no real interest in exploring what has allegedly been driving their story — the romance between David and Nina, and its effects on the family. If they’d devoted more attention to what Paige was going through or the development of David and Nina’s relationship, this third act might feel like the natural course of the story. As written, it doesn’t.
It’s difficult to address why the story doesn’t work without digging into the characters. For starters, the relationship between David and Nina does not feel real for one moment. It’s not that it’s inconceivable that a middle-aged man would dump his wife for the hot daughter of his best friend — in fact, that’s the most believable part of their relationship. As mentioned, the writers gloss over the meat of the relationship — starting with its foundation and skipping to them as a happy, supportive couple, all in the span of a few weeks — and shy away from the way their behavior affects the family. More than that, the writers never take the time to contemplate what has caused David’s marriage to Paige to collapse, or why Nina would disappear without a trace for five years for a sex- and drug-fueled trip around the world. The writers never treat these characters like real people with real problems — and worse than all that, they’re not funny.
A key example of the writers’ disinterest in its own characters is Paige’s only personality quirk: her obsession with Christmas. As described in voiceover by Vanessa, Paige’s whole live revolves around shopping, decorations, and her caroling group. The writers never really consider what she does from January through, let’s say, October, in which it might be sort of odd (and, frankly, funnier than most of the material Paige is given) to see a woman with a mindless obsession with Christmas. The same is true for every other character — their quirks and traits exist either because the story requires them or because there’s some sort of cheap joke attached to them. None of it feels believable, which makes it hard to empathize with the characters. This, in turn, makes it hard to laugh with (or even at) them, which should be a comedy’s main goal.
Posted by D. B. Bates on February 2, 2010 6:38 PM